ASHLAND — When hikers and mountain bikers returned Saturday to a place called Lamb Saddle in the Ashland watershed, they didn't recognize it as the place they left last fall.

Lamb Saddle was a clearing in the trees, a jumping-off point for several popular trails.

But for the past four months, it's been a landing site for some of the commercial logging at the heart of the continuing Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project, and left behind is a rutted roadway, huge piles of slash and mounds of ground bark in which even Himalayan blackberries couldn't take root.

"It's unsightly. It doesn't look the greatest," says Justin Cullumbine, co-director of the Lomakatsi Restoration Project, one of the AFR partners. "This would not fly with the public."

In past decades, this would be one of the scars of commercial logging. But this time, it's just a scab.

Forest crews Friday began rehabilitating the half-acre Lamb Saddle, recontouring, stabilizing and eventually replanting with native trees and grasses just as this area of the watershed off Ashland Loop Road reopens to the public.

Visitors to popular nearby trails such as Catwalk, Toothpick and Upper Caterpillar will be routed around the edge of the work site on a temporary trail for an upfront view of one of 20 landing sites used during AFR's logging component.

"It looks a little messy now, but in a year, it'll be different, for sure," Lomakatsi Executive Director Marko Bey says. "This is a small snapshot over a short time period while were working for long-term benefits."

Launched in 2009, AFR is a partnership involving the Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, the city of Ashland and the nonprofit Lomakatsi Restoration Project to address wildfire fuel loads that have altered the watershed.

The project seeks to reduce potential wildfire intensity while protecting Ashland's drinking water, improve forest health and other goals, including protecting or enhancing habitat used by, among other animals, northern spotted owls and Pacific fishers.

The project area is on about 7,600 acres of Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest land targeted for forest thinning with a mix of noncommercial piling and burning, as well as two commercial helicopter logging operations — one in 2012-13 and a second that began last fall and now is winding down.

Watching the rehab of Lamb Saddle is the making-sausage equivalent of seeing helicopter logging in action.

Trees felled last fall in commercial thinning units were fastened to heavy chains and hauled by helicopters to Lamb Saddle, where they were dropped to the ground and stacked. A loader then filled log trucks that rumbled along the often muddy road and eventually down Tolman Creek Road to the White City mill that purchased them.

In all, about 120 truckloads of commercial timber came through Lamb Saddle, and another 25 loads of non-merchantable wood left as firewood that the Forest Service will sell to the public to cut at the regular permit price of $11 a cord.

What remained Friday was a large slash pile of tree limbs and tops, a stretch of mud and rutted road and another pile of bark and dirt all strewn over about a half-acre of land adjacent to Ashland Creek.

"This may feel big to people, but this is a pretty small helicopter landing," says Don Boucher, the forest's AFR project manager.

Less than a generation ago, crews would light the burn pile, blade the road and call it good.

Instead, contractor Jack LeRoy used his loader to pick through the slash pile for post-like logs that the Forest Service will use to build a rustic fence around a water source in Wrangler Gap meadow.

More future firewood was salvaged for sale at the forest's Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District in Ashland. The rest will be burned in a special burning box that disintegrates the wood and consumes the smoke as well, so there will be no large smoke plumes from the work, Boucher says.

Lomakatsi crews used hand tools to reshape the area in preparation for planting black oak, Ponderosa pines and native grasses.

"Usually, it takes about a year for the site to completely rehabilitate," Cullumbine says.

Boucher says log trucks will continue leaving from landing sites such as Lamb Saddle over the next three weeks. Then those other landing sites will be rehabbed as their role in AFR ends, but Lamb Saddle likely will be the most intensely worked one of them, Boucher says.

Restoration of Lamb Saddle will cost about $10,000, Cullumbine says. "Keeping ecological integrity has costs," he says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.